BBQ Ribs Platter (Salt Lick BBQ near Austin TX)

Salt Lick Barbecue, (near) Austin TX

Gimme My Dang Bar-B-Que!! Salt Lick!!
Gimme My Dang Bar-B-Que!! Salt Lick!!

The Dish: Barbecue Ribs Platter

Salt Lick is really more about a great rustic, summer-camp atmosphere than earth-shattering barbecue. Nice little plate of barbecue will fill you up; the sauce is tasty. The brisket, sausage, and pork ribs are good, and the portions acceptable for the price. I liked the more mustard-driven potato salad and the other sides are OK but they don’t have any demanding, distinctive sense of homemade flavor. If you said they were from a vat, nobody would disagree (unless they work for Salt Lick and know better). With Salt Lick’s eternal popularity, maybe they’re both homemade and from a vat. Still a fun place  and decent grub for the price.

Rib Platter at The Salt Lick BBQ, near Austin TX
Rib Platter at The Salt Lick BBQ, near Austin TX

The Damage: Platter (your choice) for $11.95

Includes either beef, sausage, pork ribs, or a meat combo, with potato salad, cole slaw, beans, bread, pickles, and onions.

If you go in a group, it’s easier to just get the $18.95 all-you-can-eat platters. They keep comin’ round the bend with more food until you say, “Whoa.” (See plate below for example of heapin’ helpin’…)

Combo BBQ Meat Platter, The Salt Lick BBQ
Combo BBQ Meat Platter, The Salt Lick BBQ

The Grade: Very Good (food) but Great (experience)

A lot of why you’ll like Salt Lick Barbecue is due in no small part to the laid-back, way in-the-sticks atmosphere. It’s like a big summer campground: big old WWII-era cabins with long picnic tables, and an outdoor seating area that busts out with local live bands on weekends. You’re encouraged to tote in your own coolers full of beer (or whatever), so it’s a nonplussed party atmosphere that’s also somehow family friendly, with kids romping around all over. It feels like a Southern family reunion you got invited to, actually, with lots of distant cousins who you don’t know so well at the other tables. The barbecue itself is actually more ‘very good’ tasting than great, but the vibe at Salt Lick Barbecue should provide a fun afternoon or evening for a group.

Outside at The Salt Lick BBQ, Driftwood TX
Outside at The Salt Lick BBQ, Driftwood TX

The Spot: Salt Lick Barbecue

Salt Lick is really fun and worth the trip to its hot, dusty boondocks, so I highly recommend you go out there with a group of hungry friends and while away an hour or two and some giant plates of barbecue. Salt Lick is a fun, rustic place from another generation, with neighborly friendly service and very decent (but not phenomenal) grub. It’s an icon of the Austin area, and a must-see for you hungry tourist folk.

Toothsome: Cobbler (Peach or Blackberry Pie)

You must, must, must get a slice of fresh cobbler. In fact, get one to eat there and one to take home for breakfast. Salt Lick BBQ’s blackberry pie is insane. In fact, I remembered the pie with more drool than any of the BBQ.

A whole heap of pies are lined up along a counter next to the cash register, like some super-long Aunt Bea windowsill in Mayberry, RFD. Salt Lick may have peach and other kinds of fruit or berry pie, depending on the season, and pecan pie is a staple. I suspect that any Salt Lick BBQ pie along the line is pretty darn good. Salt Lick BBQ is like that, no nonsense and down-home sweet.

The Skinny: Salt Lick Barbecue

18300 FM Rd 1826, Driftwood, TX 78619

Phone: (512) 858-4959

Website: http://www.saltlickbbq.com/

Note 1:  Salt Lick is cash only, so bring a heap if you’re a group. No credit cards accepted.

Note 2: Be sure to go to this Salt Lick in Driftwood; there’s another Salt Lick (from the same group) that’s more like a chain restaurant than the rustic, cool outpost of the original Salt Lick.

the_salt_lick_bbq_woodensign_austin_tx_meatmeister

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Steak Tartine (Redd, Yountville)

Steak Tartine

New York Steak Tartine, Redd, Yountville CA
New York Steak Tartine, Redd, Yountville CA

The Dish: Steak Tartine

This is probably superstar chef Richard Reddington’s version of a burger & fries. The New York steak tartine, rare and thick-sliced, is mesmerizing in its tenderness, flavor, and juiciness. A bit of aioli and balsamic onions make the small open-faced bites of beef and bread drool-making. The onion rings are perfect, but thankfully the breath-charging haloes sit atop a hill of local greens for some earthiness and textural relief.

Maybe a bit of onion overkill here…I mean, people do get romantic in Napa Valley and all those onions might keep both vampires and lovers at bay. Otherwise, an exceptionally good dish.

The Spot: REDD, Yountville CA

With all the great restaurants in Northern California’s wine country, it’s hard for visitors to discern which are hype and which are worth the ‘I’m in wine country on vacation so I won’t squawk at the bill’ type of pleasure that all the restaurants here should provide. Thankfully, I found every experience at Redd, and every dish, of the highest quality. It’s among my favorite dining spots in Napa Valley.

Its pristinely simple décor certainly whispers post-modern cool, but Redd’s infused with enough warmth to avoid stuffiness. Careful, stylish selection of tables, chairs, even silverware, and an occasional eruption of fresh flowers for chlorophyll and color imbue Redd’s refreshingly spartan design.

But really, it’s about Chef Richard Reddington’s food. Reddington’s long culinary pedigree includes work at renowned restaurants in New York (Park Avenue Café and Daniel Boulud’s Restaurant Daniel); San Francisco (La Folie, Rubicon); and France (the Michelin three-star Arpege and with Roger Vergé at Le Moulin de Mougins).

To be frank, I’m not sure why Redd isn’t one everyone’s list of favorite Northern California restaurants. So afford yourself the opportunity to dine there; it’s a stellar experience.

The Damage: $25

The Grade: Exceptional / Awesome (5 out of 5)

The Skinny: Redd
6480 Washington St, Yountville, CA 94599
Phone: (707) 944-2222
Website: http://www.reddyountville.com/

REDD on Urbanspoon

Roasted Duck Breast (Big Sur Bakery, Big Sur CA)

Wood-Fired Duck Breast

Wood-Fired Duck Breast, Big Sur Bakery & Restaurant
Wood-Fired Duck Breast, Big Sur Bakery & Restaurant

The Dish: Wood-Fired Duck Breast

This is a near-perfect duck dish, and among top duck dishes I ate in  2008. Something about roasting a bird with a wood-fired oven or grill captures the real essence and flavors of meat exceptionally well, and chef Philip Wojtowicz has really mastered the technique in all the great meat dishes at Big Sur Bakery & Restaurant.  The duck breast is sliced and flayed apart, like rosy wings or arrow tips, and plenty of jus remains from the meat. The sole improvement to this dish would be some crisping on the fatty duck skin. But hey, it’s duck. That’s an expectation. 

An additional nice note about Big Sur Bakery & Restaurant is that you can select from a handful of seasonal vegetable sides. I opted to partner the duck with creamy risotto with fresh corn, scallions, Parmesan and rich broth. It was sterling, to say the least. 

Big Sur Bakery in Big Sur CA.
Big Sur Bakery in Big Sur CA.

The Spot: Big Sur Bakery & Restaurant, Big Sur CA

Big Sur Bakery & Restaurant is my favorite place to eat in Big Sur, hands down. It transforms from a funky little bakery in the morning that serves up incredible pastries to a lovely and heart-warming little spot for a romantic dinner in the evenings. Every pastry, every dinner I had there was excellent.  Two of the three folks behind this little gem are are an emigre couple from Los Angeles, pastry chef/co-owner Michelle Rizzolo and her husband, chef Philip Wojtowicz.

What’s great about Big Sur Bakery & Restaurant is its straightforward, unpretentious excellence and down-home, rustic simplicity: picnic tables on the patio and heavy little wooden tables and chairs inside.

The service is friendly and sweet and, if any place can demonstrate the inexpressibly tender magic of one of the most magical spots on Earth, Big Sur Bakery & Restaurant certainly does. It’s the gastronomic soul of Big Sur, and Rizzolo & Wojtowicz capture Big Sur’s zeitgeist in every bite.  It doesn’t just get to your stomach; it stays in your heart.

The Grade: Awesome (5 out of 5)

The Damage: $27

The Skinny: Big Sur Bakery & Restaurant

47540 Highway 1, Big Sur CA

Phone: (831) 667-0520

Website: http://www.bigsurbakery.com

Big Sur Bakery & Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Wood-Fired Pork Shoulder (Big Sur)

Wood-Fired Pork Shoulder

Wood-fired Pork Shoulder, Big Sur Bakery & Restaurant
Wood-fired Pork Shoulder, Big Sur Bakery & Restaurant

The Dish: Pork Shoulder

Big Sur Bakery & Restaurant offers fantastic dishes of meat, wood-grilled and roasted to enhance each meat’s warm, rich, and natural flavors. Their roasted pork shoulder is an absolutely awesome plate, grilled with a smattering of whole-grain mustard aioli. You can pick your choice of sides from several great seasonal options. i thought the white French beans with pancetta and braised greens were perfect. Overall, this was one of the best pork dishes of 2008: tender, flavorful, just simply magnificent. The understated decor in the restaurant and the sweetness of the staff just made the dish, and the evening, terrific.

The Cut: What’s Pork Shoulder?

Pork shoulder is the more contemporary term most restaurants use when describing the pork shoulder butt, or what butchers call simply pork butt. It’s a tender, more fatty, and thoroughly delicious portion of the pig if done correctly. But if you call it ‘butt,’ people get the wrong impression and you won’t sell many.

Big Sur Bakery & Restaurant, Big Sur CA
Big Sur Bakery & Restaurant, Big Sur CA

The Spot: Big Sur Bakery & Restaurant, Big Sur CA

Big Sur Bakery & Restaurant is my favorite place to eat in Big Sur, hands down. It transforms from a funky little bakery in the morning that serves up incredible pastries to a lovely and heart-warming little spot for a romantic dinner in the evenings. Every pastry, every dinner I had there was excellent.  Two of the three folks behind this little gem are are an emigre couple from Los Angeles, pastry chef/co-owner Michelle Rizzolo and her husband, chef Philip Wojtowicz.

What’s great about Big Sur Bakery & Restaurant is its straightforward, unpretentious excellence and down-home, rustic simplicity: picnic tables on the patio and heavy little wooden tables and chairs inside.

The service is friendly and sweet and, if any place can demonstrate the inexpressibly tender magic of one of the most magical spots on Earth, Big Sur Bakery & Restaurant certainly does. It’s the gastronomic soul of Big Sur, and Rizzolo & Wojtowicz capture Big Sur’s zeitgeist in every bite.  It doesn’t just get to your stomach; it stays in your heart.

The Grade: Awesome (5 out of 5)

The Damage: $27

The Skinny: Big Sur Bakery & Restaurant

47540 Highway 1, Big Sur CA


Phone: (831) 667-0520

Website: http://www.bigsurbakery.com

Big Sur Bakery & Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Lamb Shank (Ralph’s Bistro, Healdsburg CA)

Lamb Shank

On any given winter evening, I’m somewhat prone to order hearty things like ossobuco or lamb shank for dinner. It’s superb comfort food and, in most good Italian, Continental, or New American restaurants, it’s a safe bet. Ralph’s Bistro serves up a very good lamb shank, with well-integrated flavors and decent portions for the price. It wasn’t on par with their gigantic and delicious duck confit, but still a solid choice. 

Lamb Shank, Bistro Ralphs Healdsburg CA
Lamb Shank, Bistro Ralphs Healdsburg CA

The Spot: Ralph’s Bistro, Healdsburg CA

A lot of really good restaurants survive in Healdsburg and, while others may get the notoriety, Bistro Ralph’s unpretentious vibe and unbelievably good martinis keep locals recommending it to tourists who weren’t savvy enough to make reservations at Cyrus a month in advance. It’s a bit narrow and, like many other local restaurants, a bit noisier than it should be, but it serves solid fare at hearty portions for the prices. The only downside was the service; our waitress was distracted and just let us alone too long. Thankfully, another waiter noticed and picked up her slack, His smiles and friendly personality dispelled the specter of our irritations, which were beginning to curl around us like forlorn Japanese ghouls. Or maybe the second martini did it. 

THE GRADE: Very Good

THE DAMAGE: $27

THE SKINNY: BISTRO RALPH
109 Plaza Street, Healdsburg CA
Phone: (707) 433-1380
Website: www.bistroralph.com (Note: only basic info online to date; no seasonally updated menu)
Hours:Lunch 11:30 – 2:30 (Mon-Sat); Dinner 5:30 – 9:00 (Mon-Thurs) – 9:30 Friday & Saturday; closed Sundays.

Bistro Ralph on Urbanspoon

BBQ (Iron Works Barbecue, Austin TX)

The Dish: Barbecue Sampler Platter

BBQ Platter, Iron Works Barbecue, Austin TX

BBQ Platter, Iron Works Barbecue, Austin TX

With industrial redneck pride, Iron Works BBQ doles out the best, most reasonably priced BBQ I found during a week visiting Austin. It’

s a good, cheap lunch plate if you find yourself in downtown Austin and want to avoid the weekend crowds of South Congress Boulevard for some homier, heartier chow. Rib, brisket, and sausage are all very good here and the sampler platter comes with a little scoop of very good potato salad, some crisp pickle slices, pinto beans and a slice of white bread to sop up the barbecue sauce.  You get in line, order a platter, pay and take your plate to your seat, with a stopover for condiments, napkins, and whatever hot sauces you need to dolly up your meat choices.

Iron Works "Official Texas B-B-Q" Austin TX
Iron Works "Official Texas B-B-Q" Austin TX

The Spot: Iron Works BBQ

Iron Works BBQ, in a converted iron works of course, is a big old red corrugated tin building decorated with the steely fruits of the former laborers of the wrought iron company. The converted space is authentically Austin, with a low-key and straightforward approach to food and décor that includes old wooden tables topped with blue (nylon) gingham tablecloths and food served on paper plates. (I wish plasticware would not be the option, as I really like silverware when I eat, but oh well…)

Old back patio, Iron Works BBQ, Austin TX
Old back patio, Iron Works BBQ, Austin TX

There’s a covered back room, like a porch, that overlooks the wild verdant growth of the river, including shady trees and vines. It will probably still be hot in Austin during most days you’ll find yourself there, but it’s shady and cool enough on the Iron Works back porch to feel like a little breather from the city bustle. Families come with kids after their sporting events, and hungry regulars like construction guys and local office workers and even some hippies and hipsters will make their way in for a plate. There’s a charm about this place that makes it an Austin icon. They have barbecue sauces for sale as well.

The Damage: $12.95
The Grade: Very Good (food); Great (vibe)
The Skinny: Iron Works BBQ
100 Red River Street, Austin TX 78701
Phone: (512) 478-4855
Website: www.ironworksbbq.com

Great Sign, Iron Works BBQ, Austin TX
Great Sign, Iron Works BBQ, Austin TX

Iron Works Barbecue on Urbanspoon

Braised Shortribs (Redd, Yountville CA)

Ribs – Braised Beef Shortrib

The Dish: Beef Ribs (Braised Beef Shortrib)

The braised beef shortribs at Redd in Yountville is a terrific beef plate. This beef shortrib is smartly braised, and each bite tingles the palate, which dismounts with a sharp, tangy surprise via the delicate horseradish crust. The rich rib gravy is dark as the moonless night, and a good savory deepening to the smooth potato puree, which itself is a soft counterpoint to the slightly crispy veggies. (I had a Napa style—read, upscale—version of succotash.) Overall, Redd’s braised beef shortrib is a perfectly balanced dish with sumptuous flavors that make one quickly lose interest in conversation. It’s that distracting, and that good, but probably not the ideal lunch if you’re rolling through wine country. It’s heavy but lovely.

Braised Beef Shortribs, Redd, Yountville CA
Braised Beef Shortribs, Redd, Yountville CA

Described on the menu as: “Braised beef shortrib, horseradish crust, potato puree, early spring vegetables”

The Spot: Redd, Yountville CA

With all the great restaurants in Northern California’s wine country, it’s hard for visitors to discern which are hype and which are worth the ‘I’m in wine country on vacation so I won’t squawk at the bill’ type of pleasure that all the restaurants here should provide. Thankfully, I found every experience at Redd, and every dish, of the highest quality. It’s among my favorite dining spots in Napa Valley.

Its pristinely simple décor certainly whispers post-modern cool, but Redd’s infused with enough warmth to avoid stuffiness.  Careful, stylish selection of tables, chairs, even silverware, and an occasional eruption of fresh flowers for chlorophyll and color imbue Redd’s refreshingly Spartan design.

The Damage: $25

The Grade: Exceptional / Awesome (5 out of 5)

The Skinny: Redd

6480 Washington St, Yountville, CA 94599

Phone: (707) 944-2222
Website: http://www.reddyountville.com/

REDD on Urbanspoon